Inforevulsion: When the coverage is more important than the news…and scarier

The media is the central nervous system of the body politic. It carries information, emotions, pain, feedback from voter to voter, voter to leader, leader to voter, from extremity to extremity. Theoretically, as far as biology textbooks are concerned anyway, the central nervous system includes the brain but many modern media seem to be bypassing ...

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Getty Images
Getty Images

The media is the central nervous system of the body politic. It carries information, emotions, pain, feedback from voter to voter, voter to leader, leader to voter, from extremity to extremity. Theoretically, as far as biology textbooks are concerned anyway, the central nervous system includes the brain but many modern media seem to be bypassing that altogether. Or instead, they are just heading for its lower bits where reflexive reactions, fear, greed, lust, and everything else connected to ratings lurk.  

As we have seen this week, while the information revolution has brought much good to the world -- Angry Birds and Wii Tennis come to mind -- it really hasn't done that much for the information business. (FP's slammin' new iPad app notwithstanding.)

In just the course of a few days, we have seen several more examples about the nature of the changes brought on by that revolution. Few have been that encouraging. While the openness and transparency and inclusiveness that have been celebrated by-products of new technologies are still fresh in our minds from the days of the Twitter revolution in Tahrir Square and the positive elements (and there are some) of grassroots journalism and wikilytics (collaborative massaging of information to produce new insights), this week has also reminded us of the darker consequences of the onset of the Info Age and the ethical and political challenges associated with a world of rapidly proliferating, intersecting, instantaneous, hard-to-police, massive, information flows.

The media is the central nervous system of the body politic. It carries information, emotions, pain, feedback from voter to voter, voter to leader, leader to voter, from extremity to extremity. Theoretically, as far as biology textbooks are concerned anyway, the central nervous system includes the brain but many modern media seem to be bypassing that altogether. Or instead, they are just heading for its lower bits where reflexive reactions, fear, greed, lust, and everything else connected to ratings lurk.  

As we have seen this week, while the information revolution has brought much good to the world — Angry Birds and Wii Tennis come to mind — it really hasn’t done that much for the information business. (FP’s slammin’ new iPad app notwithstanding.)

In just the course of a few days, we have seen several more examples about the nature of the changes brought on by that revolution. Few have been that encouraging. While the openness and transparency and inclusiveness that have been celebrated by-products of new technologies are still fresh in our minds from the days of the Twitter revolution in Tahrir Square and the positive elements (and there are some) of grassroots journalism and wikilytics (collaborative massaging of information to produce new insights), this week has also reminded us of the darker consequences of the onset of the Info Age and the ethical and political challenges associated with a world of rapidly proliferating, intersecting, instantaneous, hard-to-police, massive, information flows.

The News of the World scandal is not only the most odious of this week’s cases, it is also the most ironic. The notion that a scandal rag goes down in scandal is too elegant for an enterprise that has been devoid of elegance throughout most of its century and a half long history. That this irony is compounded by having the crusading so-called journalists and media mongrels at the helm of this slimy outfit now claiming the same "I was clueless" defense they have throughout their careers so derided in so many political leaders would be droll were the offenses in this instance not so repulsive.  

But this scandal — about illegal phone taps and using new technologies to snoop around to grab juicy story bits wherever they could be found, legally or otherwise –doesn’t really introduce anything new to the media. Rather, it just underscores that one of the key characteristics of the information revolution is that it primarily takes what was previously there and amplifies and accelerates it. In this respect, it’s like cocaine, really. Sleazy journalists become more sleazy. The impact of their sleazy journalism is broader. It happens faster. There are fewer effective filters.

Alongside this debacle — and please, dear Murdochs, don’t for a minute think that we are going to buy today’s sham shutdown of one publication as anything more than a planned switcheroo in which you intend to swap the Sun into the News of the World’s slot precisely one millisecond after you think this story has died down — we have other evidence of new media misfires or troubling developments also "making news" this week.

One is, of course, the continuing saga of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. For all his personal misdeeds, the story will someday be taught in journalism schools as an illustration of how, in the current age, the impulse to rush to judgment is hard to contain. With the blogosphere pulsating with limitless reserves of pundits (producing material that makes one think more of a digestive tract than a nervous system) we see that having geometrically more views available than before tends to add to stories heat rather than light, emotion rather than reason or insight.  

This was illustrated further with the coverage of the incomprehensible Casey Anthony decision in Florida. Anything that boosts the ratings of Nancy Grace can’t be good for journalism. (Nor for that matter one’s nervous system or digestive tract.) But much of the coverage of the shocking decision focused on the disbelief in the blogosphere, on the reactions of average citizens shooting videos of themselves watching the news. What is that? News? Since when is people watching the news news? Even if they are sitting there slack-jawed…as if the average Nancy Grace watcher isn’t sitting their slack-jawed virtually all the time. With a thin stream of pork rinds trickling out of the corner of their mouths…

And then we also had Barack Obama’s Twitter town hall. Now, I’m all for reaching out to more people to enhance the public dialogue. And the President truly deserves credit for trying to use every tool at his disposal to connect with average Americans. But aren’t we getting a little wise to the town hall scam by now? And if we weren’t, shouldn’t we be? These events create the illusion of openness when, in fact, there is so much filtering of questions and participants going on that it ends up producing a pretty intellectually and politically safe environment for the Twitterer-in-Chief. Not to mention the whole fact that 140 character tweeted questions are necessarily simplistic…as is are all Twitter exchanges. That’s not a scandal nor is it a manifestation of emotion-driven mob mentality as in the other instances I mentioned. It’s just slightly distorting and a bit of a misrepresentation regarding the whole idea of real "openness." And, of course, as we have seen in the past, such slight distortions add up and alter the character of political discourse in ways that are often just as troubling as the more obvious ugliness. (Take the pernicious effect of television requiring more telegenic political figures or those who are glibber and thus better equipped to handle sound-bits and chat TV as a couple examples.)

In the end, my bet is that if you look around the world this week, it’s the change in the character of media discourse taking place all around us that is likely to have a longer lasting broader impact on more people worldwide than any of the "big stories" dominating the headlines.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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